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Seasonal notes

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A FEW days ago I walked into a store looking for some lengua de gato. I left half an hour later with four bags of assorted pastries and candies. Stocking up on holiday must-haves, especially upon seeing them on display, was definitely a factor in the large impulse purchase. However, scent was another factor that couldn’t be ignored.

Several studies have shown that scent can play a key role in forming memories. For example, many people associate the foods commonly served at their family gatherings with particular events. Another study published earlier this month demonstrated that mice can use scent to identify locations where they’ve encountered both possible mates and possible rivals for their affection. However, a third study from the Journal of Retailing seems more appropriate to the holiday season as it highlights the role of scent in influencing sales.

In one of their experiments, Swiss and American researchers studied the shopping habits of people walking into a particular store throughout which several different fruit-based scents had been diffused. During one set period, for example, shoppers walked into a room that smelled of either oranges or lemons. Another time, the scent was more complex, combining multiple ingredients. There was also a period when no scent was diffused throughout the store.

The team found that shoppers spent more money at the store during the period when the simple scent permeated the atmosphere, compared to the amounts shoppers spent when there was no scent or when the more complex scent was used.

“The current work moves beyond conclusions from earlier research,” they wrote, “suggesting that not just any pleasant, congruent scent will positively impact customer behavior; scent simplicity (or complexity) should also be considered.”

Baked goods popular

Setting aside the question of whether or not the scent of butter and sugar creamed together should be considered simple or complex, baked goods are undeniably popular during the holidays. In such a season when overindulgence is common, one reminder often heard is to celebrate in moderation.

To help reinforce this message, British biostatistician David Spiegelhalter recently suggested thinking of the effects of one’s lifestyle in terms of the loss or gain of what he calls a “microlife,” defined as “a half hour of adult life expectancy … as it is loosely equivalent to one millionth of life after 35.” His article appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of the British Medical Journal.

Spiegelhalter noted that while many people might be aware of the health effects of their decisions, they may not be concerned because the impacts may not be felt for several years. Thinking in terms of half-hour increments, however, might change that perspective.

“Averaged over a lifetime habit,” he wrote, “a microlife can be ‘lost’ from smoking two cigarettes, being 5 kg overweight, having the second and third alcoholic drink of the day, watching two hours of television, or eating a burger. On the other hand microlives can be ‘gained’ by drinking coffee, eating fruit and vegetables, exercising, and taking statins.”

E-mail the author at massie@massie.com.

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